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«The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche Liviu Iulian COCEI  The Image of Socratic Irony from the Sophists to Nietzsche ** ...»

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the irony from Xenophon’s texts, for example, we see that the great Greek ironist used to be quite direct in certain circumstances. There are some Xenophon fragments of which it is clear that Socrates was not as subtle as Plato presented him to us. Such an example is as follows: “On a master who had mercilessly punished his servant, Socrates asked him which is the reason he beats him and he received the answer: – Because he is hoggish and lazy. He only likes to raise money and do nothing. – Okay, but tell me, Socrates asked him again: Do you ever think about who deserves a terrific beating, you or your servant?” 8 Therefore, Socrates’ rhetoric question strikingly resembles the acid lines of Diogenes of Sinope. This is why we might speculate that the so-called “Socratic irony” was more transparent and direct than we are used to notice it reading the Platonic dialogues.

Closely related to these interpretations, Pierre Lévêque, suggesting that we cannot know precisely which is the real meaning of Socratic philosophy, writes that “the message of Socrates is not less mysterious than the reasons of his conviction. We only know him indirectly, from the writings of a too fool disciple and those of a too brilliant disciple”9. In other words, the debate on understanding the Socratic irony cannot be definitively closed.

Similarly, Kierkegaard suggests, in turn, that in fact neither Plato nor Xenophon have rendered Socrates as he really was: “Each of the two commentators tried of course to complete Socrates, Xenophon pulling him to the low plains of profitability, Plato lifting him to the over-human regions of idea. But, irony is the midway, unseen and elusive point. On the one hand, the ironist is in his element in varied multitude of reality, on the other, he aerially and ethereal above it, barely touching the ground; but as the empire itself of its ideality is still strange, he did not turn towards, but he is ready to do it every moment. Irony oscillates between the ideal ego and the empirical one [...]”10. However, in an attempt to overcome these interpretation problems, the Danish thinker, argues that precisely Aristophanes, the playwright, was the closest to the Socratic spirit. And that’s because, coming from the way he ridiculed Socrates – if we look like in a mirror – we could tell how the inquiring philosopher actually was.

However, the fact is that we must take into account all sources where we find Socrates’ figure, being aware that none can be absolutely true.

However, despite these hermeneutical dilemmas, there is a possibility less taken into account, namely that the so-called “cynicals” to be the real followers of Socrates’ philosophy. Eventually, “Plato, his most gifted disciple, would soon prove the least faithful,”11 writes Popper, suggesting Xenofon, Amintiri despre Socrate, Editura «Hyperion», Chişinău, 1990, pp. 91-92.

Pierre Lévêque, Aventura greacă, vol. I, Editura Meridiane, Bucureşti, 1987, p. 450.

10 Søren Kierkegaard, Despre conceptul de ironie, cu permanentă referire la Socrate, in Opere, vol. I, Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2006, p. 232.

11 Karl R. Popper, Societatea deschisă şi duşmanii ei, vol. I, Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1993, p. 220.

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that the Greek idealist was the disciple of the “closed society” theory, in contrast to Socrates who was a follower of the “open society.” And, because Diogenes of Sinope is among the most virulent opponents of Platonic philosophy, we might say that he has retained what was most authentic from Socratism. But, without entirely disproving this hypothesis, we cannot say that Socrates abused so much of irony that he became quarrelsome or sarcastic. Susan Prince notes, in this sense, that „Although Socrates and Diogenes become models in tandem for the wise man in later Stoicizing and Cynicizing authors, such as Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom, there is also an ancient sentiment that Cynicism is not continuous with Socraticism, presumably for its highly rhetorical character. Whereas Socrates was indifferent to poverty, the Cynic chose and embraced poverty. Whereas Socrates was ironic and bold, the Cynic was outrageously provocative and outspoken”12. Moreover, Socrates’ irony seems to be very similar to humor.

According to some authors such as Harald Höffding, Socrates would even be a “great comedian”: “The fact that Socrates is among philosophers the only humorist with great style is based on that, to him, the intellectual work coincided with the teaching one, practical to man. Using irony as a method, he aimed to make individuals to ponder at the great background that a man can discover within himself, whether or not it can be expressed into some clear ideas. In this case, joke and irony were a path to sobriety”13. Since we are not concerned here with the question whether irony is a form of humor or humor is a form of irony, we retain only that the Socratic irony cannot be regarded at all as resentful as the irony of cynical manifested.

Following the evolution of the image of Socrates’ irony, it appears that the Middle Ages was a rather unfortunate period for irony in general, especially because in this period it prevails the Christian morality, and then the rigidly scholastic Aristotelianism. Any eloquent omission (jokes, silences with meaning, humor, etc.) is usually reprehensible, especially because it amplifies sins like pride or hedonism. Only by the end of the Middle Ages, due to some scholars open to the art of derision, the concept of “Socratic irony” is rehabilitated. An eloquent example which shows the influence that this concept had over the Christian religion is that referring to the syntagma docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) of Nicolaus Cusanus. The similarity between the ironic method of Socrates and the attitude of one Christian results from a dialogue of the great German scholar, inspired by the technique of Platonic dialogues. In it, the Christian claims, typically Socratic by the way, that he knows nothing about God. For a better understanding of the Susan Prince, „Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics”, in Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar, A Companion to Socrates, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2006, p. 89.





13 Harald Hőffding, Humorul ca sentiment vital (Marele humor). Un studiu psihologic, Institutul

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correlation between the irony of Socrates and the Christian’s irony that, we

present the following passage:

“Heathen: «Who is the God whom you worship?»

Christian: «I do not know.»

Heathen: «How is it? You worship so devoted to someone you don’t not know him?»

Christian: «I worship Him just because I don’t know Him.»

Heathen: «I am amazed that a man is devoted to someone he does not know.»

Christian: «It is more amazing that a man could worship someone who thinks he knows about.»

Heathen: «Why?»

Christian: «Because [man] is more ignorant about what thinks he knows than on what he knows he does not know.»

Heathen: «Please explain to me.»

Christian: «Who thinks that knows something, although nothing can be known, it seems to me to be mindless.» [...] Heathen: «But who among people knows if nothing can be known?»

Christian: «We need to consider the on who knows that he does not know.»[...]”14.

Therefore, the Cusanus’ gnosiological approach reaches the famous idea of the Greek ironist, as the one that knows recognizes “he knows nothing”.

Then, like Socrates, who fought against the apparent sciences of Sophists, Petrarca, one of the first humanists of the Renaissance, exposes the medieval ignorance a verve reminding of the temerity of the sage Greek.

Influence of the Socratic philosophy emerges mainly from his writing On His Own Ignorance and that of Many Others, where the author suggests that the teaching generally serves no purpose unless it determine us to be better. As Petrarca says, “for this I was born, and not for letters; if they come by

themselves to meet us, swelling and destroying everything, building nothing:

shiny soul chains, severe labor, tumultuous task. You know, oh, Lord, that you reach every wish of the soul, like every sigh, you know that these cultures, because I used it with sobriety, I never asked for nothing but to become good” 15. Furthermore, Petrarca does not hesitate to admit, including in front of his own friends, that ignorance of Socratic inspiration, attacking their alleged science as follows: “But our friends look down to us because the light makes us happy and we do not sit beside them to grope in the dark, as if we do not trust our knowledge; they consider us ignorant, because we do not talk about these at any street corner. And they go Nicolaus Cusanus, Despre Dumnezeul ascuns (dialog între un păgân şi un creştin), in Pacea între religii. Despre Dumnezeul ascuns, Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2008, pp. 121-126.

15 Francesco Petrarca, „Despre ignoranţa mea şi a altora; lui Donato degli Albanzani”, in

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everywhere prepared with all the possible bullshit that nobody has heard, taking pride beyond measure that they have learned – without knowing anything – to speak of all and on all, to issue sentences. Therefore he is not retained by any shame, by any other reticence and even less the awareness of their hidden ignorance”16. So, the irony and the moral ideal of the Greek thinker truly reborn only through those writers who passing in the background the Aristotle’s works, rediscover in turn those of Plato.

Excepting Petrarca, one of them is Erasmus of Rotterdam, who, especially in Praise of Folly, attacks them with Socratic enthusiasm all the priests who, by virtue of dogma and religious authority, give the impression that they know better and that they convey precious messages from the height of their positions. Furthermore, the famous work of Dutch scholar can be seen as a praise of the Socratic irony, since Socrates, saying he only knows that he knows nothing than to acknowledge his stupidity. This means that the Socratic wisdom consists in recognizing the human stupidity in general.

Between the Renaissance humanists, Montaigne is probably the only one who reaffirms, in a personal manner, the old maxim “Know thyself!”, which was so present in the life and philosophy of Socrates. Thus, in light of mentioned Delphic urge, implicitly having in mind the image of the Socratic irony, the French humanist notes the following: “Because Socrates himself fully fed himself with the counsel of his god, that of “get to know himself”, and from this teaching he had come to despise himself, he was considered the only one worthy to wear the name of «wise». Who will know so, do not waver to get himself noticed by his language”17. In other words, knowing the ironic wisdom of Socrates, Montaigne encourages those who understand the significance of self-knowledge to express themselves in their mother tongue, as he had done in the language of his country. After introspection, once we would have discovered our own limits and weaknesses, it means that we will be ready to wisely share our thoughts. In this sense, we can say that Montaigne’s Essays are, largely, the written version of the Socratic way of philosophizing. This means that his “attempts” are nothing more than a spiritual exercise of self-knowledge, initiative whose single purpose is to learn how to live better.

After the brutal offensive of the Catholic Counter-Reformation that largely tempered the heroic enthusiasm of the Renaissance humanists, the French Enlightenment will break out against the Christian religion and even against faith in general. For example, Diderot, daring with his art of Platonic philosophical dialogue, will toughly criticize faith. Let’s see how things result in Conversation of a Philosopher with the Maréchale de ***. To the perplexity of the wife of Marshal, such that an unbeliever could still have reasons to be Ibidem, pp. 291-292.

Montaigne, Eseuri, vol. I, Editura Ştiinţifică, Bucureşti, 1966, p. 368.

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good, Diderot, by voice of the character Crudeli, starts to explain using his Socratic patience the apparent inconsistency, bringing her in a position to make her say just the opposite: that “people think and yet always act as they had no faith in their soul. And those who do not believe”, immediately comes the ironic answer of Crudeli, “behave almost as if they believe”18.



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